BUNKER HILL – It all started with a bid on eBay.
John Walker and his brother, Alan, had just sold a piece of land they inherited from their mother for $55,000. The money was burning a hole in their pocket when Walker came across something totally unexpected on the online-auction site – an American Huey helicopter.
“We weren’t wealthy,” Walker said. “We were $30,000-a-year, self-employed people. Instead of doing something smart with that money, we bought a helicopter. We could have taken that $55,000 and bought ourselves new pickups, paid our bills or whatever. Instead, we spend $40,000 to buy the biggest military surplus item that you could ever find.”
Walker said it was a total impulse purchase. They didn’t have any big plans for it except to put it in a pole barn and show it off to family and friends.
Instead, that helicopter eventually led Walker to quit his job and dedicate his life to the new nonprofit organization he would found called American Huey 369 Inc.
Walker created the group in 2004 after buying that first chopper. Fast forward to today, and the organization owns 12 aircraft. Three of those are fully restored, operational Huey helicopters that all flew missions in Vietnam.
Now, the nonprofit is well on its way to building the nation’s first museum dedicated one of the most respected and iconic military aircrafts in history. The $3 million, 30,000-square-feet facility will be called the National American Huey History Museum, and it’s going to be built on 22 acres just outside Bunker Hill.
The organization has already raised around $1 million for the project. Once it’s built, the facility will include a restoration center, history library, a control tower and memorial wall.
Today, the organization is operating out of a former airplane hangar located near the runway at Grissom Air Reserve Base. Walker and his team have turned the facility at 1695 W. Hoosier Blvd. into a kind of makeshift facility dubbed the American Huey Museum as they raise money for the new, larger museum.
Walk inside, and visitors are greeted by a compact space that’s almost completely filled with the three restored Huey helicopters, and another chopper they use as a static display so kids and guests can climb inside for a first-hand look.
There’s also a makeshift hootch-style hut like the ones built for troops in Vietnam inside the hangar that Walker and his wife use as an office. To the side, a small area houses Huey artifacts and helicopter parts, including transmissions and blades, that visitors can touch and look at.
“No one would normally let you touch these parts on a multi-million dollar aircraft,” Walker said.
Near the displays, there’s a TV playing a video that documents the story of how Walker and his nonprofit acquired and restored three, beat-up helicopters. And that’s a story that should never really have been told, because it never should have happened, Walker said.
In the end, the borderline-impossible story of how American Huey 369 evolved into a nonprofit group closing in on 16,000 members is one of hard work combined with a good dose of luck and, according to Walker, some divine assistance.
“People love telling me I love biting off big challenges,” he said. “A millionaire is what it takes to manage just one of these aircrafts. They told me many years ago you’d never be able to do this. That’s because most people are all about doing things with money. This group is about passionate patriots.”
READY TO FLY
Walker is one of those passionate patriots. After graduating from Peru High School in 1975, he enrolled in officer-candidate school in 1979 and joined the Marines flying CH-53 Super Stallions – one of the largest helicopters in the world. Walker cut his teeth in flight school flying Huey choppers.
Walker ended up making the rank of captain before retiring from the Marines in 1986 and moving back to Peru, where he opened a car dealership along the Wabash River.
After that, Walker thought he’d never fly again. That is until he hit the bid button on eBay in 2004 and bought a Huey with the tail number 369. Six months later, after building a pole barn to house it, they drove 1,300 miles to Maine and hauled the helicopter back to Peru on a trailer.
“It was the greatest thing in the world,” Walker said. “Everybody was hanging out of their cars with their cell phones getting pictures and waving flags. In all the tolls we went through on the way back, no one charged us a dime – until we got to Indiana.”
At first, the intention was just to put the chopper in the pole barn to show it off. But in the six months between buying it and picking it up, other veterans started telling him he should try restoring it.
But that wasn’t going to be an easy undertaking. Walker said after doing some research, he found out it would cost around $1 million for a helicopter-maintenance expert to restore it the right way.
That’s when he got a call from the Niagara Aerospace Museum. Walker said they had stopped at the museum in Buffalo, New York, on their way back from Maine and learned they owned another Huey helicopter. It was sitting out in a garage in a field, where high school kids used it to tinker on for class projects.
Of course, Walker asked if he could see it, but the man there said no.
“I was all over him,” Walker said. “I told him, ‘If you ever want to do anything with this aircraft you’re telling us about, give us a call. We’ll take care of it properly.”
That call came shortly after they arrived back in Peru. The man said he had brought the matter before the museum board, and they unanimously voted to donate it to Walker. The only catch was he had just 15 days to come and pick it up.
“I told him, ‘If I had to be there today, I’d jump on a KC-135 Stratotanker and parachute out and haul her out on my back,’” Walker said.
Instead, 10 days later, they drove a trailer back to New York and picked up their second Huey with the tail number 803.
That’s when Walker came up with a plan. The idea was to start taking the second Huey around to veterans events to gain support and raise money to restore the first helicopter they acquired.
The plan worked. Walker received enough monetary and in-kind donations that just two years later, in 2007, American Huey 369 was completely restored by the nonprofit’s team of experienced mechanics. They took the helicopter on its first, post-restoration flight from Peru Municipal Airport.
Walker said heading up in a chopper he helped bring back from the grave was a life-changing moment.
“It’s like having your first baby,” he said. “It’s hard to describe.”
The experience inspired him and the group to restore Huey 803. Just 18 months later, that helicopter was also once again ready to take to the skies.
But the organization still wasn’t done with their restoration efforts. Soon after the second Huey was air-worthy, people started asking when they would restore a Huey gunner helicopter.
“I was thinking, ‘Isn’t two enough?’” Walker said. “But by then, they had already put the idea in my head.”
The group ended up getting a gunship in Minnesota and hauling it back to Peru. It eventually ended up in Texas inside the shop owned by the man considered the world’s foremost Huey expert. After a six-year restoration and donations in parts totaling $1.2 million, the chopper flew again in 2016 with her very first crew chief from 1965.
The helicopter arrived at its new home inside the Peru hangar on Feb. 26, 2017. It just happened to be Walker’s birthday.
“If you don’t call that a birthday gift from the guys and gals above, I don’t know what else you call it,” he said.
HELICOPTERS OF HEALING
Today, Walker and his group of around 200 core volunteers take both their restored and stationary helicopters to events all over the Midwest. In the last 14 years, they’ve attended nearly 190 events. And in that time, not one event in which they flew a Huey was ever canceled. Walker calls that miraculous.
“It’s amazing enough that we restored three Hueys back to life,” he said. “But take 14 years and 189 events, and consider we don’t fly unless it’s decent weather. I tell people you can put all the millionaires in a Hyatt and tell them to bring their checkbooks and ask them to buy 189 straight days of good weather, and it wouldn’t happen.”
Their biggest event happens every August around Grissom Aeroplex, when hundreds gather to check out the temporary museum inside the hangar and the group’s members take rides in one of the restored Hueys. The event is scheduled this year for Aug. 11-12 and includes an auction, music and air-and-ground battle reenactments.
Walker said restoring the helicopters has been a personally rewarding experience, but his real goal hasn’t been personal fulfillment. It’s about bringing healing to all the veterans who used and flew in Huey helicopters since they started being produced in the 1950s.
The helicopters are still being made today and are flown in around 40 countries. But their heyday was the Vietnam War, when 5,000 American Hueys were deployed during the conflict.
Walker said that not only makes the Huey worthy of its own museum – like the one he’s working to build near Bunker Hill – but it also means almost every Vietnam vet had some kind of personal run-in with one of the choppers.
And that connection has allowed something important to happen to the veterans who encounter the Hueys.
“Healing happened,” Walker said. “That’s what this is all about. It’s about healing, education, paying tribute, honor and preservation. That’s happened now in the last 14 years more than you can imagine.”